Israel frees 198 Palestinian prisoners

Cheering crowds in the West Bank received 198 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel on Monday. The diplomatic gesture came only hours before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to the region to encourage peace talks.


Israel freed 198 Palestinian prisoners on Monday in a gesture to president Mahmud Abbas as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due in the region to spur US-backed peace talks.

Many of the detainees fell to their knees and kissed the soil as they were released outside the Israeli military detention centre at Ofer in the occupied West Bank.

Crowds cheered and chanted Palestinian patriotic songs as the detainees were driven to the territory's political capital Ramallah for a lavish welcome at Abbas's headquarters.

The release took place just hours before Rice's scheduled arrival on her 18th visit in two years aimed at encouraging peace talks formally relaunched at a conference hosted by US President George W. Bush in November.

"This is a day of joy for the fighters of freedom and independence," said   Said al-Attaba, 56, the longest serving Palestinian prisoner who had been serving a life sentence since 1977 for killing an Israeli woman.

"It is like a wedding celebration for the Palestinian people, but our joy will not be complete until all Palestinian prisoners are released," he told AFP by telephone, referring to the some 11,000 Palestinians still jailed in Israel.

Those released also included Mohammed Ibrahim Abu Ali, known as "Abu Ali Yatta," who was jailed in 1979 for killing an Israeli student. A member of Abbas's Fatah party, he was elected to parliament in 2006 while behind bars.

The release of Al-Attaba and Abu Ali was a rare and controversial exception to Israel's policy of not freeing those with "blood on their hands," who have been implicated in deadly attacks against its citizens.

"This is a big day we have been awaiting for 32 years," said Attaba's sister Sanaa, who along with friends and family has been preparing a hero's welcome for her brother when he returns to his home in the West Bank city of Nablus.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed the release earlier this month, saying that it would bolster the Western-backed Abbas, whom he has met on a roughly fortnightly basis since the talks were formally relaunched.

"It is a gesture towards the Palestinian leadership to strengthen moderate and pragmatic forces," Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev told AFP on Monday.

"We hope it will contribute to a positive climate," he said. "It is not easy to release prisoners, and particularly those who have been involved in murderous terrorist attacks."

On Sunday, the Israeli High Court rejected a petition by relatives of attack victims who sought to block the release, saying it had not found any legal flaw that would justify its intervention in what it called a political decision.

Israel had earlier said it would release 199 prisoners, but one of those on the approved list remains in detention because of pending criminal charges.

The release is seen as a boost to Rice's efforts to push the two sides towards their stated goal of reaching a full peace agreement by early 2009.

They have made little tangible progress on resolving the core issues of the conflict, including final borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the fate of the 4.6 million UN-registered Palestinian refugees.

The process has been marred by violence in and around the Gaza Strip, where the Islamist Hamas movement seized power in June 2007, and Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem.

Rice was last in Israel in mid-June, when she strongly criticised the expansion of the Jewish settlements, saying it undermined the peace process.

The latest visit will be Rice's first to the region since Olmert announced on July 30 that he will resign from his post to battle corruption allegations after his centrist Kadima party chooses a new leader in mid-September.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has been leading Israel's negotiating team with the Palestinians, is a front-runner to replace him, as is Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, a hawkish former general.

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